Slack killed IRC? (sort of)

Interesting piece channeling some early internet nostalgia, Picking Up The Slack:
Internet Relay Chat beat Slack to real-time chat by decades and helped define much of our early online culture, yet way more people use Slack. Why is that?
. The article caught my attention because I use Slack at work, and have for a couple of years. In contrast, I probably check in to IRC once every few years now (I actually just installed an IRC client on my computer, it’s been so long).

And yet back during the summers between school years in college, I’d spend a fair amount of time haunting several IRC channels, mostly on UNDERNET. You met some weird people, some nice people, and some unpleasant people. Generally, my utilization of IRC was heavily cyclical, just like my reading and posting in USENET groups. If I had better thing to do, I’d go do them.

Perhaps one of the strangest things about IRC and USENET is a few people from those days actually ended up finding me on the web, with the rise of the paleoblogosphere. At least one long-time commenter knows me from a USENET group back in the late 1990s, while the RSS aggregator that pushes my total content feed was written by an anarcho-libertarian programmer and philosopher who I actually met first when he was a teen nerd in the Deep South.

That old internet culture is disappearing and becoming legend, just like the “homebrew computer” era of the 1970s was for my generation.

How Craigslist stays at 1 by not moving on from the year 2000

In the open thread, I made a casual comment that I’ve become a bit more skeptical of market efficiencies lately. Remember, in the perfect market, the profit of the firms should converge upon zero. Is this to anyone’s benefit? Obviously, it is to the benefit of the consumer. But what happens in the long term when firms can’t make any money?

This crossed my mind recently in regards to Craigslist. Craigslist is notoriously no-frills and reflects an aesthetic and functionally stuck in the year 2000. The founder, Craig Newmark, is a pretty weird person. The company has 50 employees and does not maximize profit. But Newmark and Craigslist have had a culturally huge impact. They destroyed the newspaper classifieds.

And yet Craigslist stays stuck in the year 2000. This was obvious to me when they went after Padmapper. Padmapper was clearly a service which added value to Craigslist. And yet today I wonder if this behavior by Craigslist actually allows it to continue providing the services it does.

Imagine that Craigslist opens up its API and all sorts of other web applications develop around it. What I can imagine is that Craigslist would become the locus of massive and highly efficient arbitrages. Consider programs which match buyers and sellers in a way which minimizes the “deals” that sellers can today gain from buyers who are naive. Perhaps instead of two people going into an exchange, an ecosystem of “runners” who would transport products.

My thoughts on this are vague and cloudy, but perhaps reduced efficiency and rationality actually means Craigslist can persist for far longer?

Why SpaceX matters


Unless you were sleeping under a rock today you saw what SpaceX did. I don’t really follow Musk closely. My friends in Silicon Valley speak highly of him. He shares an interest in some of the same topics I do (he’s a fan of Nick Bostrom’s Superintelligence). But in general on an analytical level I think he’s a long-term thinker who may seem crazy, but actually is simply less pedestrian in his focus than the typical billionaire.

T. Boone Pickens has given hundreds of millions of dollars to Oklahoma State University…with the majority going to its athletic programs. And yet to my knowledge, Pickens’ philanthropy has attracted less opprobrium than Musk’s focus on quixotic topics such as hostile strong AI. Musk is weird. Pickens just furthers the cause of traumatic head injury so that his fellow Okhlahomans can cheer on Saturday.

Today at work one of my coworkers hooked up the conference screen to the coverage of the SpaceX launch and landing. I had one eye on the screen…when I saw the descent of the two boosters which landed successfully. I literally jumped out of my chair and ran over to watch them land. It was like seeing a CGI “artist’s conception” of the future of space travel come to life!

As many of you know I am not a fan of Joseph P Kennedy II. When I was a child in the 1980s he gave a speech on the floor of the House of Representatives where he argued against funding for space exploration because of the opportunity cost in relation to social spending. His delivery was quite appallingly poetic from what I recall, something like “why must we take food from the poor so that spaceships can sail high above us?”

Because I was a science nerd with a child’s lack of understanding of the “real world,” where some people were poor and destitute, my reflex was very negative. I still remember Kennedy’s pained expression and can feel my rictus of rage. It’s a flashbulb memory for me. I probably didn’t appreciate the substance of Kennedy’s argument, but the spirit of it was clear.

Some might argue that we don’t need to make a choice. But what if we did? What if space didn’t return much on our investment?

These are fundamentally ancient arguments. In China, during Warring States periods there was a stylized debate between the partisans of Mozi, who we can characterize as a utilitarian, and the followers of Confucius, as to the value of frivolities such as music. Those who aligned with Mozi were fixated on human well-being on the most general and universal scale possible. Music and other cultural productions were pure aesthetic consumption which took away from labor which might otherwise have gone into alleviating human suffering. In the end, history weighed in on the side of the Confucians…with the exception of Communist revisionists in the 20th century.

Musk, and Jeff Bezos, envisage us as an inter-planetary (and perhaps extra-planetary) species. This is laudable so as to avoid the risk of mass extinction on a single “lifeboat Earth.” But perhaps humans becoming inter-planetary is like art? Perhaps it is part of our telos?

These are ideas explored in science fiction. In Against the Fall of Night Arthur C. Clarke writes about a human race which is immortal and geriatric, inward-looking and lacking the spirit of curiosity that defines us, except for a young boy named Alvin. Francis Fukuyama’s End of History and the Last Man prophesies a pedestrian future untouched by the chiliastic passions we see today in Islamic fundamentalism or the dragons of pre-liberal nationalism awakening from their slumber. Space offers a way out of these two visions of conflict and ennui. The eternal frontier.

There is also a deeper evolutionary historical framework for understanding why we are fascinated by the possibilities of space, crazy as they are. Our own modern human lineage was the first to cross over from Sundaland to Sahul. No matter whether you accept a new date of 65,000 years BP, or the more traditional date of 45,000 years, modern humans show up in Australia very early after their exit en masse from Africa.

These humans crossed 90 kilometers of open sea. In Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond proposed that Australia may have been settled by a pregnant woman who clung to a floating tree branch. Genetics tells us this is false. Oceanian peoples went through a bottleneck, but not such an extreme one.

The implication is that the proto-Oceanian people who left Sundaland for Sahul did so as a unit, impelled by some cultural human prerogative. We may think that going to Mars is crazy, but we know Mars exists. What would have driven these proto-Oceanian peoples eastward into the great blue ocean? And how did they go east during the Pleistocene, before seafaring traditions?

The lesson from prehistory is that modern humans are a crazy species. We journey across the deep blue sea into the unknown. To a great extent, this is irrational for the groups and individuals who engage in this activity. The vast majority of voyagers probably expired. And yet something within us kept pushing some of us until we made it.

In a different lingo, one might say that staying home, focusing on safety and comfort, is a local maximum. International space agencies and private firms such as Lockheed Martin were chasing the local maxima. That was safe and defensible. Only someone as crazy as Elon Musk would push SpaceX into an endeavor which was insane and likely to fail. And yet sometimes humans don’t fail, and crazy is actually saner than we could ever imagine.

The rapid fading of information


In Robert Heinlein’s uneven late work Friday the mentor of the protagonist mentions that because of a possible collapse of technological civilization he maintains a collection of paper books.

This crossed my mind when I saw that Storify is shutting down. Or Kevin Drum’s reflections on the changes in blogging.

I’ve put a lot of content out there over the years. Probably on the order of 5 million words across my blogs. Some publications here and there. Lots of tweets. But very little of it will persist into future generations. Digital is evanescent.

But so is paper. I believe that even good hardcover books probably won’t last more than a few hundred years.

Perhaps we should go back to some form of cuneiform? Stone and metal will last thousands of years.

The iPhone killed commenting

Back when this domain received about 15 or 20 percent of the traffic it now receives there were many more commenters. What happened? One of the reasons the Sepia Mutiny weblog was shut down was that as the commentariat withered after 2007 there was less motivation to keep a community going (there was none).

The explanation at the time was that people were moving conversations to Facebook. Today we would add Twitter and Reddit to the list of “culprits.”

But there’s another thing that is hard to ignore: about half the traffic that comes to this website is now on iOS or Android. That is, half the traffic to this domain is mobile.

I’m pretty sure that the nature of browsing content on a phone discourages the sorts of intense back & forth exchanges which were the bread & butter of comments sections of weblogs in the days of yore.

Samsung Galaxy S8 is pretty good

One of the more convenient things with having a blog that has more than a few readers is that you can ask questions and get some answers.

Recently I was figuring out whether I’d go full-Apple, and get an iPhone. I got a lot of feedback, but ultimately I decided to to be boring and get a Samsung Galaxy S8.

The verdict? Bixby sucks. Everything else is pretty good. Would recommend.

Dodging the Apple Premium (still)

Because of what I have been provided by my employers over the last few years I’ve been working on a Macbook Pro. These are fine machines, but they have not converted me to being a convert to all things Apple. I have two machines with Ubuntu at home that I have no problem with using (one of them has a dual-boot where I have a copy of Windows which I use every six months or so to make sure that security updates are installed).

In any case, my current phone has been acting erratically over the past few weeks. Up until now I had been resisting getting a new phone because it wasn’t as if I really needed one…but when there is a jeopardy that your phone will decide to not boot up, one has to act.

So I was agonizing over the Samsung 8 or iPhone 8. I’ve had multiple Samsung’s before. And the Samsung 8 seemed fine. The flip side is that everyone in my office uses an iPhone 8, and I get crap for staying with Android. This is not a major issue…but I can’t lie, I’m curious about the iPhone.

In the end, I probably stayed with Android for one primary reason: people in the Apple ecosystem seem totally hostage to Apple. Upgrades are a total pain, and there are minor things I need to get fixed in regards to my Macbook Pro‘s OS which is going to require a “Genius.” The whole situation strikes me as farcical and not futuristic. I’d rather tinker with my Ubuntu distribution than wait in line at a crowded Mac store.

So pass for now….

Google still wants to be Apple (sort of)

Google Is Buying HTC’s Smartphone Expertise for $1.1 Billion. This, after Google has already bought and sold Motorola. Remember when Microsoft bought part of Nokia?

The problem is that Apple and Samsung are starting to create a duopoly. And though most phones run Android, iPhones are much more profitable. There’s a reason many companies develop for iOS but not Android. A friend at Google years ago bemoaned how much more profitable iPhone owners were compared to those bought Android phones.

With all that being said the Apple launch and comments on this blog have convinced me I’m not going iPhone. I don’t know if I’ll go for an HTC, Motorola or Samsung. But for me a phone is functional, not an accessory. Perhaps that explains some of the psychological reasons that iPhone owners spend so much more money on apps….

America’s age of animated emojis

A few days ago I watched the unveiling of Apple’s new iPhone(s). Honestly, I was a bit underwhelmed…and I probably will stick with a Samsung. Of course, I know that the original iPhone was panned, and it created a whole sector and a lifestyle. We’re a bit jaded.

But this focus on lifestyle in the technology sector made me reflect on Peter Thiel’s techno-pessimism in the late 2000s, which prompted him to write Zero to One. I’m glad that the best and brightest are going to Silicon Valley in the 2010s, and not Wall Street as in the 2000s. They don’t do positive harm in my opinion, while they did in the 2000s by increasing risk and volatility. But Apple and Facebook seem to be about consumption rather than production. They don’t make us more efficient, effective, they don’t change our civilization in its bones.

There are worse places to be, but then I read that China is setting targets and goals in relation to moving from fossil fuels to electric cars. The Chinese make a lot of goals, and execution is often an issue. But they have aspirations. Do we?

Until then, animated emojis….